The use of Metaphor in Personal and Organizational Development

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

The use of Metaphor in Personal and Organizational Development

“All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.” Gareth Morgan

If you’re interested in organizations and how they function – and dysfunction – I think Gareth Morgan’s books, ‘Images of Organization’ and ‘Imaginization’, along with  James Lawley and Penny Tompkins ‘Metaphors in Mind – Transformation through Symbolic Modelling’, are essential and highly enjoyable reading.

Images of Organization

The central proposition of ‘Images of Organization’ is that all theories of organization and management are based on implicit metaphor and that metaphors play a paradoxical role:

  • They are vital to understanding and highlighting certain aspects of organizations

… while at the same time …

  • They restrict understanding by diminishing or ignoring others.

We understand and define much of our experience of life in terms of metaphors and then go on to act on the basis of our metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.

Take for example the common metaphor that an organization is like a machine.  We think in terms of ‘inputs and outputs’, maximising ‘production’ and making ‘efficiency the driving force’.  When things are going well we say the organization is ‘running like clockwork’, a ‘well-oiled engine’ or an ‘assembly line’.  When they are not, communication is said to have ‘broken down’ and ‘things need fixing’ because there is ‘a spanner in the works’.  In response we want to get to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the operation and intervene at the point of maximum ‘leverage’.  We conduct ‘time and motion’ studies, regard people as ‘cogs in a wheel’, and attempt to quantify and measure everything.  We establish human ‘resources’ departments, allocate ‘manpower’ and recruit to ‘fill a slot’.  And if we’re really serious we’ll set about ‘re-engineering’ the organization.  Gareth Morgan says, “One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conception of organizations that it is often difficult to organise in any other way”.  To open up our thinking he seeks to do three things:

  1. Show that many conventional ideas about organizations and management are based on a small number of unquestioned images and metaphors.
  2. Explore a number of alternative metaphors to create new ways of thinking about organizations.
  3. Illustrate how metaphor can be used to analyse and diagnose problems and to improve the management and design of organizations.

Morgan illustrates his ideas by exploring eight archetypical metaphors for organizations.

Organization as Machine

A metaphor that uses concepts such as efficiency, waste, maintenance, order, clockwork, cogs, programmes, inputs, outputs, standardisation, production and re-engineering.

Organization as Organism

A metaphor that uses concepts such as living systems, environmental conditions, adaptation, life cycles, recycling, needs, homeostasis, evolution, survival of the fittest, health and illness.

Organization as Brain

A metaphor that uses concepts such as learning, parallel processing, distributed control, mind-sets, intelligence, feedback, requisite variety, knowledge and networks.

Organization as Culture

A metaphor that uses concepts such as society, values, beliefs, laws, ideology, rituals, diversity, traditions, history, service, shared vision, mission, understanding and families.

Organization as Political System

A metaphor that uses concepts such as interests, rights, power, hidden agendas, back room deals, authority, alliances, party-line, censorship, gatekeepers and leaders.

Organization as Psychic Prison

A metaphor that uses concepts such as conscious and unconscious processes, repression, regression, ego, denial, projection, coping, defence mechanisms, pain and dysfunction.

Organization as Flux and Transformation

A metaphor that uses concepts such as constant change, dynamic equilibrium, flow, self-organization, systemic interactions, attractors, chaos, complexity, butterfly effect, emergent properties, dialectics and paradox.

Organization as Instrument of Domination

A metaphor that uses concepts such as alienation, repression, imposing values, compliance, charisma, maintenance of power, force, exploitation, discrimination and corporate interest.

In describing how each metaphor is used by different organizational experts, Morgan’s book contains a comprehensive synthesis of almost every management theory ever developed!  If you want an overview of Taylorism and time and motion studies, open systems theory, organizational ecology, cybernetic and holographic thinking, corporate culture, conflicts and power, psychoanalytic theory, self-organising systems or framing and reframing, they are all in this book.

The final chapter of ‘Images of Organization’ presents an example of Gareth Morgan’s organizational analysis applied to a small firm employing 150 people. He splits the process of analysis into two stages.  First he uses each of the eight metaphors described above as a frame through which to view the organization and to produce multiple diagnostic readings.  Then he engages in a critical evaluation of each reading to produce a storyline that brings them together in a meaningful way and signposts a course of action.


Building on the theoretical, ‘Imaginization’ provides a practical guide to the use of metaphor for organizational analysis and creative management and, with cartoons and large print, it has has a completely different style to its predecessor.  Throughout the book, the principle is “It is impossible to develop new styles of organization and management while continuing to think in old ways”.  It shows how metaphors can be applied to organizational change, resolving conflict, identifying primary causes, understanding and reshaping teams, creativity, and rethinking products and services.

Although Morgan is careful not to favour any one metaphor over another, it is clear that he prefers a relativistic, self-organising approach to management.  For example, he offers the metaphor of a spider plant when considering how to manage multiple decentralised teams and projects.  To illustrate this, here’s an exercise.

1. Select an organizational unit for the exercise (a team, department, project, or whole organization).

2. List as many of the characteristics of the spider plant as you can. (e.g. Spider plants begin to grow new shoots when they outgrow their pots.  As the plant reaches out to search for new ground it receives nourishment from the mother plant.  When the new plant has established roots and is able to sustain itself, the linking shoot is no longer necessary.)

3. For each characteristic, identify where there are, and where there are not, parallels in your organizational unit.

4. Consider how well the metaphor fits your organization, and the new insights this creates.

5. Letting your imagination run wild, ‘stretch’ the metaphor of the spider plant to think about how your organization could be.  In other words, use the metaphor as the basis for a new organizational design.

6. What are the differences between the newly designed and the existing organization?  What new insights for shaping management processes emerge?

An example of the kind of thinking that emerges from this exercise follows.

Say your reading of your current company (step 3) is that “Unlike a real spider plant, the only thing growing in this organization is what’s in the pot.  The central plant is being fed by the offshoots.  Their life is being drained away”.  You might realise (step 4), “If this carries on the offshoots will die, and the central plant will suffer.  In fact it has already started to wither”.  The metaphor can now be used to create a new design (step 5), “If the stems of the offshoots represent the flow of resources and values, they need to be strong and healthy so that resources can flow both ways.  That would encourage more offshoots rather than stifle new initiatives”.  You might conclude (step 6), “We’ve been so focussed on the competition between the pot and the offshoots we’ve never thought of developing the stems.  We could even use them to integrate the whole organization”.

‘Images of Organization’ was written from a consultant’s viewpoint.   But in ‘Imaginization’ Morgan engages with people within organizations and the ways in which they can describe their own metaphors and create new ones.  He concludes, “The challenge facing the modern manager is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor:  To find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations with which they have to deal”.  This is not some ‘nice to have’ tool, but an indispensable skill.  Whether we realise it or not, we are all using metaphors all the time … and are taking decisions based on those metaphors.

Metaphors in Mind – Transformation through Symbolic Modelling

Building on the approach detailed in ‘Imaginization’, of using metaphor to understand organizations and management, Symbolic Modelling  focuses exclusively on using the metaphors generated by those who work in organizations.  This approach is aimed at facilitating individuals who are themselves embedded within the systems to understand and change themselves and their organizations.  Symbolic Modelling can be used as an alternative, or as a supplement to Gareth Morgan’s methodology.  My source is James Lawley and Penny Tompkins ‘Metaphors in Mind – Transformation through Symbolic Modelling’ (2000).

Furthermore, Lawley and Tompkins combine Symbolic Modelling with the use of a technique developed by David Grove called Clean Language.  This establishes, what I think is, a fascinating and highly productive approach to individual and organizational development.

When someone says “I keep running up against a wall in this company,” Grove assumes the metaphor is a perfect description of their experience. Thus, what kind of wall it is, where it is, its size and shape, and the direction of the running will all be symbolic of what it is like to have that person’s experience.

In addition to Grove’s work, ‘Metaphors in Mind’ incorporates ideas from cognitive linguistics, self-organising systems theory, evolutionary dynamics and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Embedded Metaphors

Ordinary conversation is littered with (mostly unconscious) metaphors.  In fact it is ‘hard’ to ‘put together’ an ‘everyday’ sentence which does not ‘contain’ a ‘hidden’ metaphor.

  • My mind has just gone blank
  • There’s a gap in my knowledge
  • I’m feeling down today.

These sentences are not obviously metaphoric until ‘blank’, ‘gap’ and ‘down’ are examined more closely. We call these and similar expressions embedded metaphors since their metaphoric nature is disguised in familiarity and ordinariness.  But once we start to recognise embedded metaphors we notice them everywhere.

Clean Language

David Grove discovered that when we ignore another person’s metaphors or introduce our own, we unwittingly ‘contaminate’ their experience.  This is fine in ordinary conversation, but not if you want to facilitate that person to become aware of their inner symbolic world that has such an influence on the way they think, feel and behave.  So how can we help another person discover and develop their own metaphors without introducing our own?  To meet this challenge Grove devised a number of very simple questions and a way of asking them called Clean Language.

In ‘Images of Organization’, Gareth Morgan might analyse a company and decide that it is being run like a machine.  Or in ‘Imaginization’ he might suggest that a manger use the metaphor of a spider plant to help re-design their organizational.  This is in sharp contrast to Symbolic Modelling where Clean Language is used to facilitate the manager to discover their own metaphor for the organization, and then use that metaphor to help them achieve their outcome.

In the following example, ‘M’ represents a manager, ‘C’ represents a coach, and bold text highlights the format of some common Clean Language questions.  These can be asked of any metaphor.

M: I want to understand why my organization is not more successful.

C: And when you want to understand why your organization is not more successful, your organization is like what?

M: You could say it’s like a machine.

C: And what kind of machine?

M: It’s like a combine harvester I suppose.

C: And is there anything else about that combine harvester that your organization’s like?

M: It’s flexible with interchangeable parts depending on the type of crop.

C: And is there anything else about it being flexible with interchangeable parts?

M: Timing is so important.  Too early or too late and you miss the opportunity.  It’s no good harvesting until the crop is ready.

C: And then what happens?

M: We go through the whole cycle again.

C: And where could that cycle come from?

M: It’s the natural order of things. That’s right. We have to educate the new recruits in the nature of the cycle. They try to rush things or they give up too quickly. If they knew about the cycle …

This short exchange demonstrates the fundamentals of Clean Language.  Clean questions are ‘clean’ because the facilitator is careful only to ask about the client’s metaphors, to use their exact words to do so, and not to introduce any metaphors of their own.  Because of this, clean questions can be used in a remarkably wide range of circumstances.

What follows are experiences described by James Lawley of how Symbolic Modelling has worked for him, in three organizational contexts, i.e. executive coaching, new product development, and creating a corporate metaphor.  These examples will help you better understand the process and apply it to yourself or your clients.

Case 1: From Bombs to Batons

The initial coaching session with a manager in a multinational company revealed he wanted “to be able to hold the line against aggressive senior managers.” As I (James Lawley) listened to him describe his work, I noted down some of his metaphors: “I have to defend my people, “I blew up,” “I was in a Catch 22 situation,” “His method is to drill you and then attack,” “The troops are falling by the wayside,” “His lieutenant had a word with me,” “I can lose it in the heat of the battle.”  When these expressions are taken together it is easy to identify the manager’s underlying metaphor … Work is a battle.

When I repeated his exact words back to him he said he was “shell-shocked,” and we laughed.  I asked “And where does being in ‘the heat of the battle’ come from?”.  He replied immediately, “You must defend your territory to be on the winning side.”  Then I enquired, “And when you must defend your territory to be on the winning side, what would you like to have happen?” Traces of emotion flickered across his face before he shook his head and said “Not to have to defend myself.”  I asked him what metaphor he would prefer instead.  After trying on and rejecting the idea of a sports team, he settled on an orchestra — which I then helped him explore by using Clean Language.  Later, he used this metaphor to gauge his, and others’ behaviour: Am I participating like a member of an orchestra?  When am I the first violinist and when am I playing the triangle?  When I chair a meeting, are we all playing the same tune and am I conducting appropriately?

The manager recognised that seeing his work as a battle had significantly influenced the way he responded to his colleagues, and in particular those “higher up the command chain.”  Over the next few months he gradually altered his behaviour to more closely fit his orchestra metaphor. And surprise surprise, senior managers started acting differently towards him.

Case 2: Launching New Balloons

I recently worked with a Director of a company who was about to launch a new product which needed a high degree of autonomy.  He was unsure how the product could be seen to be an integral part of the existing company.  Through the process of Symbolic Modelling he devised a metaphor of a central launch pad from which a hot air balloon could rise and descend.  The balloon was navigated by its own captain and yet was always connected to the launch pad by a cable which both defined its scope and provided safety.  This arrangement allowed for other balloons to be launched, and the possibility that when a balloon became large enough the cable could be severed and replaced with a looser, even more autonomous form of organization. Clean Language facilitated the Director to explore a multitude of aspects of the metaphor: the balloon, the qualities of the captain, the launch and landing gear, the relationship with outside observers, the round table strategic plans, the effect on the public looking at the balloon as it was flying, etc.

One interesting feature of this approach is that I had no idea of the product in the Director’s mind because I was working entirely within the logic of the metaphor.  Also, one of his colleagues who was observing the process felt compelled to join in saying she had never had such a clear insight into his thinking.  She added suggestions to the way the balloon arrangement could work and was able to voice her concerns by questioning the metaphor.  They later noted how staying within the metaphor eliminated the defensiveness which often occurs in such situations.

Creating a Corporate Metaphor

Many companies have created corporate mission and vision statements, but few have created a corporate metaphor. New Information Paradigms (NIP), a niche software development company specialising in knowledge management systems, is one that has. Assisted by consultant Caitlin Walker, each of the 16 staff identified a number of metaphors for ‘the company and where it is going’, for ‘me as a member of NIP’, and for ‘my relationship to NIP and the way I would like it to become’.  As a result, an entire wall next to the coffee machine became adorned with symbolic drawings and metaphor maps.

The staff were taught Clean Language so they could respectfully investigate each other’s metaphors.  Next, each of the company’s four teams was facilitated to incorporate their personal maps into a group metaphor.  With this accomplished, the teams paired up to discuss areas of overlap, disagreement and synergy, and to produce an integrated metaphor.  Finally, all four teams combined to produce a single composite corporate metaphor.

And the result?  A far better understanding of what they were collectively trying to achieve and how they could work together.  NIP found that “meetings are shorter, more constructive and we reach a common understanding quicker.  We are more able to remain objective and yet it allows people to access their emotions without having to be overt about it.”  Caitlin Walker adds that the process gives them another perspective from which to find agreement and uncover problems: one group metaphor contained a river, and when they saw there was no way for people to cross the river, they realised “there it is, that’s the problem!”

Recognising a good thing, the company has devised its own applications for Symbolic Modelling.  When a NIP customer has difficulty specifying their requirements, the sales team use Clean Language to help them create a metaphor for what they want. When the metaphor is translated into traditional business-speak, the customer feels understood and NIP knows it has high-quality information.  For example, take the company that considered its information system as like a series of interconnecting reservoirs where water levels dynamically changed depending on the amount of rain, evaporation and usage.  The customer wanted to more closely monitor water levels, predict when new reservoirs are needed, and not get caught out in a severe drought. Once explored, the metaphor was converted into the language of demand forecasting, contingency planning and quality control.  Back at the office, the sales people relayed this information and the customer’s metaphor to the software designers.

NIP says metaphors provide a ‘common definition language’ with which to discuss a project and to get to the underlying reasons why something is the way it is.  The software developers create their own metaphors to help explain the technical design features to the sales and marketing teams, who in turn use these in their presentation to customers. In the process the software developers have found unexpected uses for their systems.

New Information Paradigms has identified three main advantages of using metaphor. In their words:

  • “Metaphors work because they transmit enormous amounts of information and richness.”
  • “Presenting ideas and situations as metaphors gives the receiver the opportunity to understand the message being communicated to them, in their own terms. Perhaps more importantly, any points raised, or criticisms voiced about the metaphor (with its inherent gaps, flaws etc.) isn’t personal — the scope for taking offence is greatly reduced … there is ‘room to manoeuvre’ without being ‘pinned down’ … to get all metaphorical.”
  • “Encouraging participants, in a group, to come up with their own metaphors for (apparently) the same thing — a product, a customer situation etc. — often creates a mental or virtual ‘shared space’. In this ‘shared space’, it becomes possible to explore individual metaphors, there is scope to merge or use them as stepping stones towards a metaphor that everyone has contributed to, or at least that can be subscribed to.”

Facilitating an individual or group to recognise the unconscious metaphors that shape their worldview, that guide their decisions, and that constrain their choices, encourages insight and heightens self-awareness. To facilitate without suggesting, presupposing or imposing your own metaphors requires the skilled use of Clean Language.

And the whole process can be taken to a deeper level by facilitating an individual or group to symbolically self-model the way their system works.  Then, rather than trying to make change happen, new learning occurs, problems get solved and creativity is stimulated organically, as a by-product of the self-modelling process.


Morgan, G. (1997 – first edition 1987). ‘Images of Organization’, Sage.

Morgan, G. (1997). ‘Imaginization’, Sage.

Lawley, J. and Tompkins, P. (2000).  ‘Metaphors in Mind – Transformation through Symbolic Modelling’.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

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